Cameron, for all of the bullish talk earlier this week, is right now looking a bit of a fool at the Brussels summit. He’s probably wondering what he has done to deserve being placed in such a pickle. Plenty, actually, but I can still see his dilemna.
On the one hand he has to face up to the fact that the leading Eurozone governments want full fiscal union to prevent another sovereign debt crisis and are not very interested in his opinions or his agenda (repatriation of powers back to Britain). They don’t trust him and there is no appetite to give Britain special privileges or a veto over any new/amended treaty. The summit is being billed as ‘the last chance to save the Euro’ and if it is, it’s hardly likely that France and Germany are going to be interested in the debate being bogged down in discussions of the British government’s interests and desire to claw back the right to sack people more easily. ‘Merkozy’ and the rest of the EU bureaucracy seem quite happy to tell him to piss off if he gets too mouthy. As a non-member of the Euro, Britain doesn’t really have many cards to play, especially as he has pulled his MEPs out of the EPP grouping that Sarkozy and Merkel’s parties are members of, much to their consternation and bemusement. Cameron is perfectly aware of this of course. He is no fool. It’s a pity that a large proportion of his MPs aren’t blessed with similar powers of self-awareness.
On the other, the eurosceptic squad, that make up a large majority of the parliamentary and lay membership of the modern-day Tory Party, see this as a golden opportunity to start the process of pulling Britain out of the EU, as, if they’re honest, that’s what they want to do. They want Cameron to go over to Brussels with the ‘bulldog spirit’ (as the rabid, utterly boneheaded Tory MP Andrew Rosindell suggested earlier this week in Parliament) , give it large, and come back with lots of concessions and returned powers, heralding a new dawn of British sovereignty. Like that’s going to happen.
They are deadly serious though. Plenty of senior Tories, for example Ian Duncan-Smith, party leader-presumptive Boris Johnson, right-wing darling David Davis, senior MP and Duncan-Smith acolyte Bernard Jenkin (and yes, Duncan-Smith does actually have acolytes…….) are applying none too subtle pressure for a referendum on any new treaty or amendments that come out of the summit. A referendum that the eurosceptic right would be confident of winning, and would almost certainly presage a further referendum on outright withdrawal.
Witthdrawal, as my colleague CJB has already pointed out on these pages, would be an absolute disaster for us all. It would also surely usher in a period of xenophobic, flag-waving discourse that the right would exploit to further their anti-immigrant, pro-market agenda.
Cameron must also be aware that withdrawal would impoverish the nation and cost his mates lots of money (which of course begs the question, why are so many Tories in favour of it?) One of his bottom lines in the negotiations is that he will allow nothing that could hurt the interests of the City and the financial sector, i.e. a transactions tax, something that appears to have further aggravated the EU boss class, as this threat to the City of London exists (sadly) only in his and his MP’s very vivid imaginations. Cameron is entering the negotiations with lots of threats, rhetoric and demands, but very little political capital with which to actually achieve his objectives.
But many in his own party simply don’t trust him of course. They think he will ‘go native’ and capitulate to the European political class. In any case, they are unconvinced about a man who failed to achieve an outright majority in the surely the most propitious economic and political circumstances that an opposition party could have been operating in. They expect him to go there and deliver on his previous hardline Eurosceptic rhetoric. Failing to do so, and caving in, would be suicidal for Cameron.
He also has the small matter of his coalition partners, the avowedly Europhile Lib Dems applying the diametric opposite pressure to that of his own MPs. And it appears that their Europhilia is the one principle they are not willing to dump. Not yet anyway.
There isn’t any question that Cameron’s line has softened on the EU, especially in relation to his often feral MPs. The talk of powers being brought home and increased British sovereignty has amounted to nothing thus far, and nor will it, in all probability. He wants to walk the tightrope of domestic party political considerations and European Realpolitik, probably do a Thatcher, talk the talk without actually walking the walk, and somehow muddle through.
His first problem is that his MPs mean it this time. They want Britain out of the EU. And they have shown several times in the past that they are willing to sacrifice practically anything to get their way. They genuinely seem to think that this is the issue of our time and have finally sensed an opportunity to act on their impulses. The legacy of Thatcher, however selectively remembered by her disciples, runs deep.
His second problem is that closer integration is now firmly on the agenda and in fact looking a certainty. Oppose it, and he risks Britain and it’s ruling class being marginalised, and himself being remembered as the PM who led Britain into the international political wilderness. Go along with it, and face eternal ignominy in his own party and probably a leadership challenge.
So many dilemnas and problems, Mr Flashman.
I genuinely have no idea how this summit will pan out. I don’t think he does either. It seems that closer union is on the cards, but what the effect of this is difficult to know at this point. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it could potentially bring Cameron down though. Tory MPs have a dangerous habit of self-immolation when it comes to the subject of Europe.
We could be on the cusp of something big. If the summit fails, the Euro could collapse. The consequences are unimaginable. If it succeeds, we could have a new, deeply integrated EU in the long run, with Britain carping impotently at the sidelines and paying the economic price. Either way, I imagine the no-win, rock-and-hard-place scenario is pretty much the opposite of what Cameron was hoping for. For once though, I’m not revelling in his discomfort.